Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Lost City of Z

Unlike many aficionados of fantasy role-playing games, I don’t have a particular fondness for Medieval Western history. I’m acquainted with it, largely stemming from my exposure to it as reference material for the hobby overall, but I’m not wont to read treatises on the Dark Ages or the medieval period for my own personal edification. Instead, I have a certain fascination for the historical period that spans from the end of the American Civil War to the end of World War I and the Great Depression. That brief period of years is much more interesting to me, as it bears the characteristics of the modern age in an embryonic state, giving us glimpses of the world in which we now live in a much rougher and quasi-legendary form than that of our day-to-day lives. From the taming of the frontier, the scientific advancements (Edison, Tesla, and Marconi), the wholesale loss of life in the Great War, and the rise of the artistic movements that shaped our modern culture, this time period is more intriguing to me than the age of castles, crusades, and feudal society.

It was with much excitement then that I discovered David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, a book concerning the life and mysterious fate of the British explorer, Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett has been regulated to a historical footnote nowadays, almost unknown by anyone without an interest in the period of exploration that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century, but during his time he was considered one of, if not the most, successful explorers of the Amazon region. A veteran of several campaigns into the Amazon jungle to explore and map the region, Fawcett, accompanied by his son, Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell, set out to locate what Fawcett referred to as “Z,” a lost city that he hoped would prove his theory that the Amazonia Indian tribes were descended from a highly advanced civilization. On May 29, 1925, Fawcett made one last communication to his wife, and then vanished forever into the jungle. His ultimate fate remains a mystery to this day.

The Lost City of Z is one part historical account, one part biography, and one part an investigative attempt to solve the mystery of Fawcett’s disappearance. The author, having gained access to some of Fawcett’s personal papers long restricted from public view, travels to Brazil in an attempt to track down Fawcett’s trail, now some eighty years gone cold.

The book is worth reading for Grann’s biographical work on Fawcett alone. Fawcett was a man of contradictions: a product of Victorian prejudices who nevertheless was captivated by the “savage” tribes of the Amazon, a family man who felt most at home away from it, and a rational man with a well-ordered mind who eventually succumbed to a fatal obsession, which cost both himself and his son their lives. Fawcett’s exploits in the Amazon inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World, using Fawcett’s discoveries in the jungle as that work’s framing device. As a member of the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett was considered by many to be the epitome of the British “individualistic explorer” – a man who could venture into the unexplored corners of the world with nothing more than a compass, a machete, and a sense of divine purpose. He was renowned for his almost uncanny constitution: where other men succumbed to disease and illness, Fawcett seemed immune. He was also immune to the pleas for respite and mercy from his exploration co-members. He had little patience for “pink-eyed weaklings” and made it very clear that any man who grew too ill or injured to keep up with the party would be abandoned to die.

As intriguing as Fawcett might have been, however, the book really shines as it details the worlds through which the explorer moved. From the halls of the Royal Geographical Society to the “Hell Verde” of the Amazonian jungle, Grann captures the nuances of those worlds in fine detail. These chapters are of particular interest to role-playing hobbyists as there is much to be pilfered from these pages.

Anyone considering running a “Green Hell” adventure – one where the party must confront the unmapped expanses of the jungle primeval – is encouraged to read The Lost City of Z. In addition to the ubiquitous dangers of the jungle in the forms of piranha, leopards, anacondas, and hostile Indians, the book covers the various diseases and insects that plague explorers unused to this wilderness. The wearying toll of exploration is examined and examples of how even some of the staunchest of explorers succumbed to misery and despair long before their bodies gave out are provided.

As the book covers events that occurred from the end of the 19th and into the first third of the 20th century, The Lost City of Z is a goldmine for Call of Cthulhu keepers and general pulp genre game referees alike. Fawcett’s sudden and complete disappearance inspired not only real life explorers – many who vanished just as completely as Fawcett in the jungle – but writers, film makers, and playwrights as well. Even Indiana Jones encountered Fawcett in the novel, Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils. A very real religious phenomenon sprung up in the wake of Fawcett’s disappearance; some believing that Fawcett discovered a cave that lead to a subterranean city where he discovered the secrets that allows humanity to transcend into another dimension. Fawcett’s dalliances with the occult and Theosophy in order to determine the existence of Z is ripe for the picking of adventure ideas.

For the D&D crowd though, The Lost City of Z provides a very interesting look at the real life world of explorers and professional adventurers – a group of individuals held together only barely by the interests of science, self-promotion, and lasting fame. The backbiting, the dismissal of rival explorers accomplishments as being without merit, as well as the paranoia of being beat to a discovery are all covered in the book. An example of an “explorer’s agreement” – a formal agreement signed by all members of an expedition prior to departure – is provided and makes a good starting point for creating similar adventuring contracts drafted by party members before embarking on a dungeon delve. A quote by a member of the RGS shows insight into the character of professional adventurers and explorers: “Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have a streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men.”

While Grann is unable to discover the final fate of Fawcett, Jack, and Rimell – which will, barring some extremely unlikely discovery of their bones in the verdant jungle, forever remain a mystery – he does shed new light on the theory of Z and shows that current scientific evidence seems to indicate there was a kernel of truth to Fawcett’s belief in a lost civilization in the Amazon. Despite this limitation, the book is a glorious trip back to a time when the edges of the world were still less defined than they are today. As this fascination with exploring the unknown is much of the appeal of fantasy role-playing games, I think a reading of The Lost City of Z would benefit and entertain most readers of this blog and encourage you to take the time to seek it out. Hopefully your search will have a much better resolution than that of Percy Harrison Fawcett.


Geoffrey said...

Thank you very much for this review. Pre-Columbian Central American and South American civilizations (moreso than any other civilization) inspire my D&D. Tiahuanaco, Mayan glyphs, stone cities deep in the jungle, naked savages, human sacrifice, Chavin de Huantar, anacondas, vampire bats, piranas, etc. etc. etc.

Now THAT is D&D!

gnombient said...

Cool review, this sounds really fascinating. Now I just have to wait for the 70 library holds ahead of me to get my hands on it...

Lord Kilgore said...

Thanks MUCH for writing this up. I'm currently putting together a "green hell"-type campaign and have been thinking I need to do a little more reading on it. My setting is more African than South American, but I'm guessing that 95% of this would still apply.

Timeshadows said...

I recently saw a programme on the very subject.
How interesting.

Santiago said...

I gotta get this book, thanks for the recommendation.

Your post on the Wild West was also great.

- Zulgyan

Amityville Mike said...

The book is a pretty quick read too. It's very straight-forward in its presentation of information and the fact that the subject matter is so interesting (to me at least anyway) it's hard to put down.

I was thinking of the game applications the book had the whole time I was reading it and thought it might be a good reference source for my fellow gamers. Hopefully, it will be of use to you folks as much as it was to me.

Amityville Mike said...

I recently saw a programme on the very subject.
How interesting.

I know the National Geographic Channel had a program on the possibility of a older, higher advance culture in the Amazon that debuted a few months back. This is were I first heard mention of Fawcett's name and I stumbled upon the book by accident just recently. Perhaps this was the same program you saw?

Amityville Mike said...

Your post on the Wild West was also great.

Thanks Zulgyan. I wasn't sure how it was going to be taken by those outside of the U.S. but I hope it provided some food for thought. Anything to add from the Argentinian point of view?

Adam Thornton said...

If you like the time period and the Myth-damping-down-to-Mundanity feel, you have got to read Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.